Getting outside help

In today’s uncertain economic climate, the public sector is under as much strain as the private sector. It can be tempting to view consultants as an unnecessary cost that will detract from the bottom line. But this is often a false economy. On large IT projects, having the input and advice of specialised consultants can ensure that a project can be completed on time and within budget.
    
The rapid expansion in the use of IT in all walks of life in the last ten years has brought about a sea change in the way that central and local government does business with its customers – the public. In particular, the reform of public services to make them more efficient and cost-effective has led to a rise in the number of large scale IT projects. Such projects, for example IBM’s work on the DVLA’s online vehicle tax renewal system or Digital Public’s work with the Department for Children, Schools and Families (see inset), could not have been delivered without the help of specialist consultants.

Room for improvement
The public sector has made great strides in recent years in raising the quality of service that it provides to its users but, as in all organisations, whether public or private sector, improvements can always be made in terms of quality of service, cost effectiveness and efficiency. The public expects more and more from its local and central government services and certainly expects the public sector to be as sophisticated in its use of IT as the private sector. Therefore, the public sector needs its IT systems and processes to be at the cutting edge of modern technology; consultants can help to deliver this.
    
There are many reasons why organisations choose to hire consultants, whether the need is to manage a particular project from start to finish or simply to provide extra manpower, knowledge and skills when needed. A common reason for hiring consultants is to bring in expertise and skills that are not present in an organisation and this applies particularly to large IT projects.
    
Projects of this scale require a very specific set of skills and engaging consultants is usually the most cost effective way of gaining the benefit of such expertise: the consultant is, by definition, hired for a specific timeframe or project, thus doing away with a costly recruitment process and the ongoing costs of staff retention and benefits. Further, consultants have experience across a range of organisations and sectors and will apply this knowledge to specific projects and thus are able to come up with the best and most cost effective solution for a particular project.
   
Another factor is the scale of the project: for many projects, IT consulting does not just deal with the provision of new equipment and software. Major IT projects will never have a one size fits all solution: to be successful, large IT systems have to be designed around the needs of the organisation and the behaviour of its people. In addition to this, the changes in working practices for employees and new or different ways of interacting with customers require careful management, and this is frequently part of the package that consultants provide.

Why hire a consultant?
Deciding to hire consultants is a big decision for any organisation and reasons for doing so vary. Consultants are frequently hired in order to bring specific skills to an organisation or project but there can be many other reasons. Often, in order to get a project off the ground, an organisation simply needs extra help – and bright, energetic, capable people can help get a new initiative up and running whilst leaving internal resources free to carry on with the important day to day running of the organisation. Once a project is well on its way, consultants may be brought in to keep the momentum strong.
   
People assigned to internal projects have day jobs that require their attention and, as can sometimes happen in large projects, may not be able to commit sufficient time to the project. Consultants can help in such situations by providing the energy and determination to see a project through to its conclusion. Unlike employees, consultants can devote all their time and efforts to one project without distractions.
   
Another common reason for hiring consultants is to provide an objective view of the organisation and the project. Here, organisations can tap into the creative thinking of consultants and come up with an innovative approach. For example, in cases of an industry or sector-wide threat, an organisation’s competitors may all have tackled it in the same way, so it may wish to differentiate itself from the pack and come up with a new approach.

Find a good match
A key factor when choosing a consultancy for a large IT project is that the consultancy retained must match the project to be delivered. Faced with a new problem, an organisation may not have the skills in house to provide a solution. What that organisation needs is a plan to take it from where they are currently to where they want to be. Organisations should be looking for consultancies with a track record in successful implementation of similar projects and a structured methodology that captures the accumulated lessons learned from previous projects.
   
When embarking on such a large project, it is vitally important that the client provides clear objectives, timeframes and acts as an ‘intelligent client’. Budgets and key milestones should be agreed; throughout the project, the client and consultants should frequently engage with each other at a senior level to ensure that information and knowledge is shared and progress can be measured.
   
When drawing up a shortlist of potential consulting firms for a particular project, a good place to start is with the membership of the Management Consultancies Association. The MCA’s membership criteria include the requirement that firms must have been in practice in the UK for at least three years and provide at least five client referees who are contacted by the MCA. MCA members will also be independent and recommend the best solution for each client, without being swayed by allegiances to particular suppliers. Further, firms must comply with the MCA’s Code of Practice, which provides the consultancy buyer with reassurance that MCA firms maintain high standards.
   
Within the membership there are a variety of types of consultancies, ranging from independent specialist IT consultancies, which can provide objective technological advice and solutions, to firms providing a range of consulting disciplines – these can help where there is a change management or HR element to the project that needs to be addressed alongside the IT project. Picking the right consultants can be as important as choosing the right IT.
   
Intelligent use of IT and its applications has the potential to transform public services and make engaging with customers and other stakeholders easier and more cost-effective.

Alan Leaman is chief executive of the Management Consultancies Association, whose members represent about 70 per cent of the UK consulting sector.

IBM and the DVLA
The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) is one of the busiest government agencies with responsibilities for law enforcement, crime reduction, the maintenance of driver and vehicle registers and the collection of vehicle excise duty (VED). One of its main objectives is to make it as easy as possible for customers to comply with vehicle licence legislation. With a process that relied mainly on post offices, manual transactions and paper checks, the existing service environment was inefficient and expensive. DVLA chose to work with IBM Business Consulting Services to address inefficiencies, improve operational performance and enhance customer service.
   
Having gained insight into DVLA’s business strategy, objectives and processes, IBM recommended, designed and developed an integrated, easy to use, 24-hour, online and automated telephone service for DVLA customers. Integration with insurers and the MOT system ensure vehicle licence renewals occur quickly while including legal and fraud checks. In addition to improving operational efficiency, the new service is seen as a landmark in the UK’s e-government journey and has established a model for the delivery of other e-government services.
   
The project began with IBM consultants and senior stakeholders in DVLA and DfT working together to understand the business strategy and objectives. It was also important to ensure that the project was aligned with the UK’s e-government agenda. The approach included undertaking detailed business and technical feasibility assessments, defining channel strategy and commissioning primary customer research before developing a full business case for the initiative.
   
The partnership approach to the project that IBM developed with DVLA has been recognised by the Office of Government Commerce as innovative in style and groundbreaking in execution.

Digital Public with the DCSF

You don’t get an easy ride in the press if you’re a teenage dad. And in some cases, the criticism is justified. Yet academic research shows that the education, behaviour and even health of kids with teenage parents improve significantly if the father has a relationship with his child. The challenge facing the DCSF was how to reach this audience.
   
The DCSF was already funding half a dozen telephone helplines, but at an average cost of £32 per parent helped, the Department felt it wasn’t getting best value for money. And demand exceeded the limited capacity it could afford. Realising that helplines would never help a large number of parents, the DCSF embarked on a ‘Parent Know How’ initiative that aimed to support a million parents a year by 2010-11 – a massive increase on the 90,000 reached under existing arrangements – while reducing the cost per parent helped.
   
It turned for help to Digital Public, which developed an innovation-fund approach to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of third-party specialists. Designed to improve use of digital media in particular, the fund boosted capacity by, for example, enabling helplines to direct some callers to online information, and get closer to the target audiences. Those teenage dads, for example, are less likely to use the telephone for support than to look online or to use their mobile phones to access information.
   
To date, the programme has reached more than 11 million people – more than ten times the original target, and costs per interaction have fallen dramatically.

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